Jun 16th 2008

The Great Montaigne still Haunts his Chateau

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

BORDEAUX-- The windows are open to the elements. The stone walls have not changed for 800 years. The stairs are worn with grooves from millions of footsteps over the centuries. But Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, the man who invented the modern essay, spent much of his life in this small, gloomy room thinking, reading and writing. A visitor senses his ghostly presence and wonders how he kept warm.

"He would pace for hours, glancing at the exposed ceiling beams where he had inscribed quotations from his favorite writers," said Alicia Bourdin, manager of Chateau de Montaigne Historic Site, my guide for a recent visit to his estate near Bordeaux. "He found them inspirational."

Ms. Bourdin pointed to a spot on the beams where four epigrams from the ancient Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus are written, and they sum up Montaigne's searching mental state:

"I decide nothing." "I understand nothing." I suspend judgment.\#52#I examine.\#48#MsoNormal\#43#MsoNormal\#40#c1">The chateau itself burned down and was rebuilt to a different design in the 19th century. It is now privately owned and occupied. But the nearby tower, topped by the study, has magnetic power for Montaigne fans. The tower dates from the 13th century but Montaigne's father acquired the property and the noble title in the 1500s.

I was drawn to the chateau by the current revival of interest in Montaigne's writings. The late film director and fan of the classics Orson Welles once called Montaigne "The best writer who ever lived", and readers have a wider choice of Montaigne extracts with each passing year.

French publishers have long looted Montaigne's works, now slicing and dicing his prose in slim volumes for the television generation.

For more determined minds, the publication last year of a 1,975-page volume, the complete Essais plus 800 pages of explanations, indexes and commentary was a cultural event in France when it appeared. I tried to buy it at the chateau but it was not stocked there. A salesgirl told me where to find it but warned "Il vous coutera la peau des fesses!\#48#MsoNormal\#43#MsoNormal\#40#c1">Indeed, at a Bordeaux bookshop I found the beautifully printed book, its off-white paper stock, its elegant typeface and its biblical binding. I was tempted to add it to my library but decided against the 78 euro price tag.

Several new publications by English-language Montaigne specialists are also attracting attention. Prof. Terence Cave of Oxford University recently brought out "How to Read Montaigne". The latest, "The Fabulous Imagination: "On Montaigne's Essais", by Prof. Lawrence Kritzman of Dartmouth University, is due out in September.

How does a thinker from the 1500s keep his momentum going? Montaigne is a "very modern writer", Prof. Kritzman told me in a long talk by telephone from New Hampshire last week. "He anticipated many of the issues discussed today by critical thinkers." Among those are gender identity, physical beauty, laws and how they change, the meaning of language, and what it means to lead a good life.

Prof. Kritzman pointed out that Montaigne lifted taboos on many touchy subjects -- fear of impotence, lying, the meaning of existence, how to educate children, and how to deal with death. One of his classics discusses the pros and cons of keeping up conversation while having sex.

Modern essayists from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Roland Barthes, John Updike, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley owe him a debt of gratitude.

Montaigne could be erudite but he could also be witty, as in his description of the best marriage: Bring together "a blind woman and a deaf man." Or his warning that "whoever is weak of memory should not try being a liar." Or his contrast of university rectors to happy laborers and concluding, "I would like to be more like the laborers".

I believe he also invented gallows humor, citing in one essay wisecracks from men about to be strung up. One refused to sip from the same cup as the hangman, fearful of unknown disease. Another directed the death wagon to take a longer route to avoid a shop where he owed money. Yet another was offered freedom if he would marry one of the village spinsters. He declined. "She limps," he said. The trap door was sprung and the spinster presumably limped off home alone.

The 107 Essais, written over an intense eight-year period, established a new literary form - introspective reflections on a range of subjects from cosmic to the commonplace. His writings were an extension of the intellectual bond he had with writer Etienne de la Boëtie, who died suddenly at 32, leaving him adrift.

He retired to the family chateau and resorted to inner dialogue, coining the term "Essai" (from the Latin exagium, the act of weighing), to continue the development of his ideas. He called it "the dialogue of the mind with itself". Others have called it a collection of letters to a friend. Had la Boëtie lived, the essays might never have been written.

As a child, Montaigne was taught to speak Latin as his first language, highly unusual in a world of rapidly changing French and local Gascon. Even servants were ordered to speak only in Latin when within his hearing. Added to his classical Greek later in life, the result was an easy fluency for access to great works of the Romans and Greeks. He amassed a huge library for his era, numbering about 1,000 volumes, 200 of which survive in the Bordeaux Municipal Library.

In his wide reading he filtered out the best of Pliny, Cicero, Seneca, Xenephon, Plato, Socrates, Sextus Empiricus and others, interspersing their best lines within his essays.

Prof. Kritzman recalls being told early in his career that he would begin to grasp Montaigne only as he aged. "I think that is true," he says now.

Writing in a recent Times Literary Supplement in London, Oxford Prof. Ian MacLean seems to agree. He noted that Montaigne's writings can move "jerkily" as in thought processes, to communicate their vehemence, irony, playfulness or immediacy. But, he concluded, it is "well worth expending the diligence that Montaigne required of his reader".


If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com. Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Oct 17th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But property-sector woes are not the only economic danger China faces in 2021-22. The Chinese government’s mounting crackdown on the country’s burgeoning tech sector may pose an even greater threat." ---- "According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, the share of Chinese urban employment supported by private enterprises more than quadrupled between 1995 and 2018, from just 18% to 87%. The share of exports generated by the private sector more than doubled over the same period, from 34% to 88%. And private-sector fixed-asset investment jumped from 42% to 65% of the total. The message in the data is clear: clamping down on the private sector and threatening innovators is not the way to ensure sustained rapid growth. Chinese entrepreneurs can read the writing on the wall. They understand that their political and regulatory room to maneuver is shrinking, and that the balance has shifted in favor of state-owned firms and public officials. And they understand that this uneasy atmosphere is likely to persist."
Oct 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "We designed a programme that incorporated data from over 300 million buildings and analysed 130 million km² of land – almost the entire land surface area of the planet. This estimated how much energy could be produced from the 0.2 million km² of rooftops present on that land, an area roughly the same size as the UK."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "Britain in the 1950s was wedded to the US, acting as a partner rather than leading the charge. Now, while the UK continues to support the US, the influence it has seems negligible. While it may bring comfort to the UK to feel it is a partner to a superpower, being its stooge or subordinate is an unpleasant place to be, no matter how much you tell yourself it values your opinion."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "That was then. Now, the Chinese government has doubled down, with President Xi Jinping throwing the full force of his power into a “common prosperity” campaign aimed at addressing inequalities of income and wealth. Moreover, the regulatory net has been broadened, not just to ban cryptocurrencies, but also to become an instrument of social engineering, with the government adding e-cigarettes, business drinking, and celebrity fan culture to its ever-lengthening list of bad social habits. All this only compounds the concerns I raised two months ago. The new dual thrust of Chinese policy – redistribution plus re-regulation – strikes at the heart of the market-based “reform and opening up” that have underpinned China’s growth miracle since the days of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It will subdue the entrepreneurial activity that has been so important in powering China’s dynamic private sector, with lasting consequences for the next, innovations-driven, phase of Chinese economic development. Without animal spirits, the case for indigenous innovation is in tatters."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Wartime nostalgia plays an important part in Britain’s instinctive fondness for the special relationship. Like former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some British politicians might believe that the United Kingdom is the only European country with serious armed forces and the political will to use them. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Blair before him, seems to fancy himself a modern-day Churchill. Unfortunately (or not), Britain’s military power is insignificant compared to what Churchill could command in 1944. Wartime nostalgia has drawn Britain into several foolish American wars, which other European countries were wise to avoid."
Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."